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PA. SUPREME COURT Man not told he lost appeal wins freedom



Published: Sat, February 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Man wins freedom because no one told him he lost appeal.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A man who had been imprisoned on drug charges won his freedom this week because no one ever told him he lost an appeal.

Sheldon West was freed from a 24- to 54-month sentence for a 1990 drug dealing conviction after the state Superior Court ruled he was denied his rights because court officials never told him he lost an appeal and didn't try to bring him back to prison for almost a decade.

The court, in a ruling Tuesday, went against common law, which typically holds that people have to serve their sentences regardless of how long they're mistakenly free. The court said West was deprived of further possible appeals while his case was apparently lost.

West, 47, of Swissvale, was released from prison on bond in 1991 while he appealed his conviction for dealing cocaine, arguing some evidence should have been suppressed. The state Superior Court denied that appeal and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 1993.

He remained free and for 9 1/2 years mistakenly believed he had won until he was arrested in April 2002 on a fugitive warrant during a traffic stop.

His attorney and court officials had said West's case apparently fell through the cracks.

Missed opportunities

But in Tuesday's 22-page ruling, the appeals court said court officials had plenty of opportunities to bring West back to prison.

West didn't try to hide and kept the same address and job for more than a decade. He also showed up in courts in Allegheny County, where he was convicted, and neighboring Westmoreland County to face a handful of new charges; he pleaded guilty to drug charges three times.

West "had several contacts with the criminal justice system ... Yet, despite the opportunities the courts had to address the outstanding question of whether [he] served his 1990 sentence, they repeatedly failed to do so, even after recognizing that a question existed about the matter," Superior Court Judge John T. Bender wrote.

Officials with the Department of Corrections said in 2002 that they had made at least a half-dozen inquiries to Allegheny County court officials and prosecutors while West was mistakenly free to find out what happened in the case.

West served about half of his sentence at a state prison in Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, and was paroled in August. He now works as a janitor at a Baptist church in an eastern Pittsburgh suburb.

West maintains he was innocent of drug dealing in 1990 but said he has since turned his life around.

"Sometimes I just lay and think, 'Where would I be if this wouldn't have happened?' I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing," he said. "I have peace of mind now. I am happy where I am at. God just had to show me I could make it without the crutches I had before."

Herbert Terrell, West's attorney, said he anticipates the state Attorney General's Office will appeal the ruling.

A spokesman with the state Attorney General's Office did not immediately return a phone call for comment Friday afternoon.




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